Wednesday August 9, 1995
"The Brothers McMullen" is ragged but right. Made on the run in little time for almost no money, it has the kind of life and spirit that often goes away when budgets go up. While other films struggle for their effects, "Brothers" simply lives and breathes, thoroughly likable from beginning to end.
Written, directed by and starring 26-year-old Edward Burns and costing less than $25,000, this casual, conversational film arrives laden with distinction. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the top honor at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and ended up the first picture to be distributed by Fox's new Searchlight Pictures division. But it's best seen without the burden of expectation, but rather with the open heart of someone amenable to falling in love.
The vagaries of the heart is what "Brothers" is about, as well as the related questions of commitment, fidelity and the demands and benefits of family. Burns' native wit keeps things loose and natural, as does the pleasure at being exposed to an unexplored setting for romance, the Irish Catholic suburbs of Long Island.
Though they don't always go to church, the three McMullen brothers are both supported and comically tortured by their Catholicism, by the need they feel to varying degrees to reconcile their lives to their religion. Burns, who shot the film in his parents' house "out on the island," has an intimate knowledge of this unexpected milieu and casually but firmly hooks us into caring about these people and their concerns.
The three good-looking McMullen brothers are in their 20s, and, with their abusive father dead and their mother's departure for Ireland to rejoin an old sweetheart, they have only each other to turn to as they puzzle out how to relate to the women they're involved with.
Though their personalities and personal situations are different, the brothers are united by a shared unreadiness to commit to one-woman romance. The idea of being "a real guy with a real life" is initially too frightening for any of them to contemplate for too long.
This applies even to Jack (Jack Mulcahy), the oldest of the brothers and the only one with both a real job (as a high school coach) and a wife. But when the beautiful Molly (Connie Britton) starts talking about children, Jack gets nervous and enviously eyes brother Barry's hedonistic lifestyle and his wild date, Ann (Elizabeth P. McKay).
An affable rogue who is teasingly known in the family as Mr. Hotshot Noncommittal, Barry (played by writer-director Burns) is a would-be screenwriter with a wicked tongue and a firm belief that no one should ever get married.
"Your wife," he reasons, "is the last woman you'll see completely naked and be allowed to touch. It's something to think about." Both irresponsible and irresistible, he is proud of never having been in love and considers himself an expert in the art of breaking up. Which is what he thinks his younger brother, Patrick (Mike McGlone), should be doing as soon as possible.
Though not as entertaining as Barry or as solid as Jack, Patrick has an earnest commitment to the Catholic religion that makes him the moral center of the family. Though they jokingly call him "altar boy," it is to Patrick, just out of college, that the others come when their worries about what constitutes "a big-time sin" threaten to get out of hand. And it is much to the picture's credit that Patrick's devoutness is presented in an affectionate, appealing light.
Deeply enough involved with his intense Jewish girlfriend Susan (Shari Albert) that she at least is considering marriage, Patrick is unconvinced. Not because he doesn't believe in the institution, but rather that he's romantically obsessed with finding his "true soul mate" and doesn't want to take the big step until he is sure who that is.
A lack of funds on both their parts moves Patrick and Barry back into their old rooms in the attic of what is now Jack's house, and that change in living conditions ends up bringing new women into their lives. Patrick starts to notice Leslie (Jennifer Jostyn), a fetching neighborhood girl he used to admire in high school, and Barry, on a desperate apartment-hunting mission in Manhattan, finds himself outsmarted by the self-reliant Audrey (Maxine Bahns), an actress who is resistant to his practiced charms.
Though its "Will love find a way?" plot is cheerful and diverting, it's the characters that make "The Brothers McMullen" the success it is. Writer-director Burns has a gift for amusing and profane dialogue for the affable way people, especially brothers, needle each other. And he is especially fortunate in his cast, which mixes professional and non-professional actors and makes his characters sweetly realistic.
And though he did it partly for economic reasons, Burns' decision to cast himself as Barry was the choice that puts "The Brothers McMullen" over the top. He, no surprise, understands the character exactly, and his way with the script's blasphemous banter keeps the picture from getting somber.
Burns, who is only 26, told the audience after the film's initial Sundance screening that he first got into acting in college because "I didn't want theater majors in black turtlenecks to come in and bash my scripts." Rarely has artistic paranoia paid off so quickly and so well.
The Brothers McMullen, 1995. R, for language and some sexuality. A Marlboro Road Gang/Videography/Good Machine production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Edward Burns. Producers Edward Burns, Dick Fisher. Executive producers Edward J. Burns, Ted Hope, James Schamus. Screenplay by Edward Burns. Cinematographer Dick Fisher. Music Seamus Egan. Editor Dick Fisher. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Edward Burns as Barry McMullen. Mike McGlone as Patrick McMullen. Jack Mulcahy as Jack McMullen. Shari Albert as Susan. Maxine Bahns as Audrey. Connie Britton as Molly McMullen. Jennifer Jostyn as Leslie. Elizabeth P. McKay as Ann.